For Clinton, Women and Newbies First

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Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton campaigns in Traer, Iowa, Dec. 30, 2007

Chelsea Clinton has been famous since she was in braces. This does not stop her mother from telling audiences on the campaign trail that, "It's a great treat traveling with my daughter, Chelsea Clinton" — as if there was a chance they might not know which Chelsea she was beaming about.

In Iowa, Clinton's supporters don't just know Chelsea, many of them know what it's like to campaign with their daughters. The largely female audiences that show up at Clinton events are filled with mothers and daughters making common cause over presidential politics in hopes of electing the first woman president. And these newly fervent supporters are a critical part of Clinton's caucus night strategy.

Teresa Valyer, a retired teacher and Navy veteran, decided how she would vote in the caucuses after the first televised Democratic candidate debate. "I said, this woman knows the answer to every question that's asked." Then Valyer swayed her 27-year-old daughter Brandy, who will give rides to other Clinton supporters on Thursday night and plans to second Clinton at their precinct caucus.

Many of the Valyers' neighbors in this conservative part of the state are less supportive. One of the reasons Valyer went to Clinton's appearance in Council Bluffs on Monday night, which drew 850 people, was to pick up a new yard sign — her fourth. "They usually last about three days," she says, adding, "It's not Hillary fans."

Connie Gronstal, the wife of Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, lost her sign, too — and it was one of the oversized ones known around here as "barn signs." (Swiping it took some effort, as the tire tracks in the snow attested.) But Gronstal, who, with her 30-year-old daughter Kate, serves as Clinton's Pottawattamie County co-chair, says that people are warming up to Clinton, thanks to her many visits to western Iowa. "After people have met her, they usually see a different person," Gronstal says. "After they meet her, they are really won over."

Just how many mothers, daughters and other folks she's won over is, of course, something that Clinton won't know until Thursday night. But campaign officials say that much of their support comes from people who have never felt strongly enough about a candidate to caucus before. They estimate that first-time caucus-goers account for 60% of their most likely voters — categorized internally as 1s, or firm supporters who have signed cards pledging to vote for her, and 2s, those who expressed their intention verbally to Clinton canvassers. (The system has five categories in all, with 5s being "people who wouldn't caucus for you if you gave them a million bucks and cured their kids' cancer," says campaign spokesman Jay Carson.)

The Clinton campaign says its caucusgoers will include a greater percentage of newcomers than any other Democratic candidate.

But this is a mixed-blessing. Newbies are far less reliable than those who have caucused in the past, so the campaign is factoring in the possibility that some of them won't actually show up-something known internally as the "flake rate."

Even if the flake rate accumulates into a blizzard, the Clinton campaign disputes a Des Moines Register poll out this past Monday showing Barack Obama leading Clinton by seven points. The results, they say, are based on a projected surge of independents and Republicans planning to vote in the Democratic caucuses — an unprecedented surge in which independents would account for 40%, and Republicans 5%, of all caucus-goers. Clinton strategists say that such a scenario is nearly impossible, given that it would amount to a more than doubling of their proportion of those attending the caucuses. "We do not believe that will be the case," Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn wrote in a memo to supporters.

Penn noted that, among Democrats, Clinton leads Obama by six percentage points in the Register poll, 33-27%, and would edge him out by two percentage points, 29-27%, if the partisan mix of caucus goers duplicates 2004, a year in which there was no Republican nominating contest to draw independents. "What we know is that Hillary has continued momentum in what is shaping up to be a very close race," Penn wrote. So close, she'll need every mother and daughter. And maybe their grandmothers, too.